A Lagrangian approach to the Loop Current eddy separation
Abstract. Determining when and how a Loop Current eddy (LCE) in the Gulf of Mexico will finally separate is a difficult task, since several detachment re-attachment processes can occur during one of these events. Separation is usually defined based on snapshots of Eulerian fields such as sea surface height (SSH) but here we suggest that a Lagrangian view of the LCE separation process is more appropriate and objective. The basic idea is very simple: separation should be defined whenever water particles from the cyclonic side of the Loop Current move swiftly from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Florida Straits instead of penetrating into the NE Gulf of Mexico. The properties of backward-time finite time Lyapunov exponents (FTLE) computed from a numerical model of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea are used to estimate the "skeleton" of flow and the structures involved in LCE detachment events. An Eulerian metric is defined, based on the slope of the strain direction of the instantaneous hyperbolic point of the Loop Current anticyclone that provides useful information to forecast final LCE detachments. We highlight cases in which an LCE separation metric based on SSH contours (Leben, 2005) suggests there is a separated LCE that later reattaches, whereas the slope method and FTLE structure indicate the eddy remains dynamically connected to the Loop Current during the process.